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Steven W. Smith is the author of  the book, The Lazarus Life: Spiritual Transformation for Ordinary People and companion study guide Living the Lazarus Life: A Guidebook to Spiritual Transformation.  He also is co-founder (with his wife, Gwen) of The Potter’s Inn in Colorado, which is promoted as “a Christian ministry devoted to spiritual formation and soul care.” http://www.pottersinn.com/soulcare/retreat-seven-commitments.htm

Steve also has authored several other books including Embracing Soul Care, Soul Shaping, The Transformation of a Man’s Heart and Soul Care: The Seven Commitments for a Healthy Soul.

I came across Smith on an ordinary Sunday morning in service at my former church about a year and a half ago.  Because his message was a bit jarring, I remember a few details.  He spent some time talking about a theme of his book, The Lazarus Life.  As he began to speak, I became more and more alarmed.  I have since listened to him speak, and to other pastors speak about the themes of The Lazarus Life, and there is a consistency in the general message. 

I have come across a sample copy of parts of The Lazarus Life, online which reveals the thinking and direction of the book.  The companion study notes are often found on church websites as some churches are choosing to run through the book and guide as a series.  The messages I have heard in person or through online media parallel the book and companion study. 

The copyright page alone is very revealing, acknowledging the use of several versions of the bible including The Message by Eugene Peterson.  I have found this to be the main version Steven W. Smith uses when he is speaking, and it appears frequently in the book.  The differences are striking between this version and the ESV, KJV, NIV, or NASB versions I am familiar with in church settings.  One example I recently heard while listening to a presentation by Smith, and he used one of the Beatitudes to make a point.  This is also quoted in his book.  Comparing these interpretations can give insight to how different the MSG than other versions typically used. 

Matthew 5:3:

(MSG) “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

(KJV) “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

(NIV) “Blessed are the poor in spirit,  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

(NASB) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

(ESV) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Interesting how consistent the other versions are on this one.  The Message presents it’s own meaning of Matthew 5:3.   The Message version also takes the focus inward and on the person reading.  Note the references to “you” in the verse. 

Steven W. Smith promotes and makes his living off of the concept of Spiritual Transformation.  His message is based on the account of Lazarus rising from the dead.  Sadly, when presenting the account, Smith changes things, he makes it something it’s not at all.  The account is recorded in John Chapter 11.   

 In reading  and then commenting on the account of Lazarus, which I heard live, Steven Smith focuses on what happens both before and after the raising of Lazarus.  He speaks of the amount of time Jesus lingered and did not visit the ill Lazarus.  Much is made of how Jesus could have come earlier.  This is turned into a call to solitude and silence, we must wait on Jesus.  It’s also used to express the concept that Jesus will not always show up in our difficult times.  When we ask, “where is God,” we can note that He sometimes lingers as He did with Lazarus.  Though it is true Jesus doesn’t always stop the cancer, the job loss, the death of a loved one…it is not true that He lingers and is not with us.  However, Smith spends much time focusing on this tarrying and also on our response, which is to wait and to listen.  He parallels this with times people spent “in the wilderness.” 

In my notes on a sermon of Smith’s, this is what he says about the time in the wilderness.  Note the verses used come from The Message:  “…”when life is heavy and hard to take go off by yourself, enter the silence, bow in prayer, don’t ask questions, wait for hope to appear.  Don’t run from trouble.  Take it full face.  The worst is never the worst.  Lamentations, do you know what that word means?  Lamentations means lamenting.  Lamentations…it’s almost as if you want to grab some of those words.  When life is heavy and hard to take, enter the silence.  Paul’s right there, don’t reach for your own demand button.  Silence has a way of reducing us, we can enter the silence and say, “what are you up to God.”  When we enter the silence our prayer just becomes “God what are you up to.”  Bow in prayer, that’s right, bow.  Bow because we must.  We don’t know the future, we don’t know what’s going to happen in our economy, I dont’ know what’s going to happen to my son in Iraq.  “You are God, I am not, I release my entitlement…and this is a hard one…don’t ask questions.”  Wait for hope to appear, don’t run from the trouble.  Dont’ run from the trouble and seek out another church.  Let’s deal with something.  May we in our own grave clothes ask to be free.  Don’t run from the trouble.”

Smith takes this Lamentations chapter, and uses it to begin teaching about contemplative prayer, introducing a congregation to “the silence.”  He uses it for individual problems, which are a big deal to each of us.  His son is in Iraq, this is very difficult for him.  He suggests we use Lamentations to encourage us in these difficulties.  If we have a problem, enter the silence, bow down in prayer, wait on the Lord.  See what God is up to. 

Let’s look at the verses he quotes in Lamentations again, through context and in different versions. 

The MSG Lamentations 3:28-30

”when life is heavy and hard to take go off by yourself, enter the silence, bow in prayer, don’t ask questions, wait for hope to appear.  Don’t run from trouble.  Take it full face.  The worst is never the worst.” 

NIV

Let him sit alone in silence,
 for the LORD has laid it on him.

Let him bury his face in the dust—
 there may yet be hope.

Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
and let him be filled with disgrace.

ESV Lamentations 3:28-30

 Let him sit alone in silence
   when it is laid on him;

 let him put his mouth in the dust—
   there may yet be hope;
 

let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
  and let him be filled with insults.

As you can see, the versions have differences.  The NIV and ESV are not a huge contrast, but The Message really sounds like a completely different text.  It is important to use a good translation when teaching concepts to a congregation.   What is interesting is Smith neglects to give the entire context.  What is going on in this passage that the writer is so downcast?

This book, some think is written by Jeremiah, records great suffering in Jerusalem.  The city has sinned, turned away from God.  God lets loose His wrath, and also allows the city to be taken by it’s enemies.  This is not about only one man’s problems.  It’s not about cancer, it’s not about job loss.  It’s about the deep sorrow for a people who have sinned, and now are experiencing great suffering.  The people are showing who they are in this suffering, the mothers withholding food from their children, even to the point of “boiling” their young for food.  This is like the Holocaust, there is desolation and death everywhere.  No one is there to help. 

 Now, think, if a person witnesses his people suffering and knows it is because of sin and wrath, and if he himself is part of this suffering, wouldn’t the lament begin?  Wouldn’t the tears flow?  The writer talks of his teeth grinding in the dirt, he speaks of bowing way down into the dust.  He is shamed, he is insulted, he is nothing.  It is time to be silent, time to listen to God.  It is the only hope.  Only God will give any chance of salvation.  This is not about coping with problems, it is about repentance and begging for mercy.  It is about seeking God and showing true anguish, true mourning over sins. 

It is true that God is there and we can wait on him in our troubles, but to suggest this passage  is about waiting on God in silence when we have life’s troubles whether big or small is to misuse the passage.  To use it to place people into the dessert and go off on some contemplative prayer exercise to make life better is wrong. 

Smith misuses the entire account of Lazarus to make the story about the individual.  He even has titles in his book such as “I Am Lazarus:  Finding Ourselves in the Story” and “The Voice of Love:  Hearing the Savior Call You by Name.” 

On page 71 of The Lazarus Life:  Spiritual Transformation for Ordinary People Smith writes:

“In Jesus’ words to Lazarus, we hear the same Voice of Love that we can hear for ourselves today.  We learn through Lazarus that only love transforms a person—not power, not information, not effort.  We learn through Lazarus the beauty of listening to that love.  This is one of the greatest spiritual callings of our journey.”

and further:

“Hearing Jesus speak your name is the first step in emerging from the tomb and moving toward transformation.  Jesus speaks your name—not your friend’s, not your pastor’s not your teacher’s—when he invites you to “come forth” it is a personal invitation of love.” 

On page 72 Smith goes even further, 

“The crucial step of being transformed is learning to let yourself be loved.  Skip this step and transformation will not happen. ”

This all becomes about the individual person, their self esteem, recognizing a person is worthy of God’s love.  All of this from the account of Lazarus, from looking at our circumstances and comparing them to what was happening in Lamentations.  We are to be silent so we can “hear the voice of Jesus” call us out of the tomb. 

Basically, Steven Smith is saying in order to be transformed we have to accept that God loves us.  He says it like this on page 77: 
“Until we realize that Jesus is willing and able to come to our own tombs and speak words of love, we will live a lie.  In our churches we will stand and sing of God’s love and the life that Jesus offers, but inside we will stand alone in fear that He may not call our name out as He called the name of Lazarus.  This kind of  lie robs us of the life Jesus wants for us—a life in which we enjoy the love of a God who would do anything to free us.”

On pg 80 Smith quotes Henry Nouwen:

“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection…Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence. (From Henri Nouwen’s book, Life of the Beloved)”

What is the actual point of the account of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead?  One need only look in the book of John to find why it was written. 

John 20:31 (ESV) “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Why does Steven W. Smith believe this account was written.  In his study guidebook called Living the Lazarus Life he takes the reader through visualizations and encourages Lectio Divina and other forms of contemplative prayer. 

 

Exercise on pg 45  “Read the passage slowly and reflect on these questions.  You may find it helpful to read this passage three or four times, pausing after each reading, to listen for a different aspect or emphasis or insight.”  The quote then has a footnote referencing Lectio Divina as a sacred reading and encouraging a slower, contemplative reading of the passage.  Two books are suggested….Smith’s own Embracing Soul Care and Too Deep for Words by Thelma Hall.  Smith even suggests to use Google to find web sites on the subject of Lectio Divina.

The first question encourages the reader to “ Imagine this scene.  What do you see? Hear? Feel? Smell?  Where do you see yourself in this story? (footnote) With whom do you most identify?  What do you imagine this man might have felt after such a long time of waiting?”  In the footnote it Smith explains further: “Engaging the senses is an ancient and important way of reading the scriptures.”  He then explains that Ignatius was one who helps “believers use all of their God-given senses to understand the truth of scriptures.”

Steven W. Smith uses biblical passages to assert that spiritual transformation requires our realization that God loves us, as an individual.  We must go through a time of silence, solitude, and prayer exercises in order to understand the scriptures, to hear God speaking to us, to heal our souls.  We are to place ourselves in the biblical accounts, use our imagination to put words in Christ’s mouth, and learn to cope with life’s problems.

This approach is disturbing.  The bible is used to put forth an agenda.  All the while, the focus is off God and what He has done, off Christ and his sacrifice, off our need for salvation due to our wretched sin.  It’s about learning to cope with problems, to learn methods for feeling closer to God, for learning to feel better about ourselves and that we are loved.  Much of the gospel is twisted or missing.  Much of the Christian life becomes a self examination. 

Self examination should lead to a realization of our sin, our need to repent, and the greatness of God.  Instead, it seems to me, Smith wants us to examine ourselves to learn we are something in God’s sight.  Yes, Jesus does love us, but are we to use this knowledge of his love to focus on ourselves?  Are we to visualize Him saying He loves us?  Are we to put words in His mouth and imagine His actions toward us in a biblical account?

More quotes to ponder from Smith….The Lazarus Life:

Pg. 76 “It was not until I knew myself to be the Beloved (capitalized in the book) of God—singled out as a soul-sick man in his forties—that I began to be transformed.” and  “The seed of transformation that took root in my life was this:  I had to learn to accept being accepted.  I had to be loved.” and on page 83:  “Silence and solitude became the tools of transformation for me to hear what my soul-sick soul needed to hear:  I am loved.  I am wanted.  I am the object of Jesus’ love.” Further on page 90:  “The ancient spiritual exercises also help us learn how to enter silence and be alone with ourselves.  There our aloneness is transformed to true solitude.  We find that we are at last at home with ourselves and experience peace with God.”

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I feel I should be praying for my former church, the leadership is in error.  What to pray? God’s will.  I pray God’s will.   My hope is that things can be turned around there, that the leadership will see it’s errors and repent…truly repent. 

I also pray for myself.  I pray I get my nose in the bible and my focus on Christ.  Period.

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I once wrote my pastors and asked not only who they were reading but who they would recommend.  There were many who did recommend Dallas Willard.  Apprising Ministry linked to this page.  It further confirms my squeamish feelings for this man’s influence in the church.  I must admit, when I began my research on this man (I came across him after researching Steve Smith who spoke at our church…he mentioned Willard as a big influence on him), I thought that discipline sounded good.  It was like a weight loss plan that I wanted to buy into.  If I would only be more disciplined, I could be a better Christian.  Time passed, I read more, and it just sounded too good to be true (and it was).  I couldn’t pin it all down, but I began to realize Dallas Willard’s thinking was not quite right on.  I do not believe I really had some magic insight, just that my pastors were preaching unbibilically, and Willard was their influence.  As I read more, I did finally learn Willard was part of the Spiritual Formation crowd (and he’s a leader).   Read the link and just think on scripture and what is taught about Christ.  He’s the narrow gate, no one comes to the Father except through Him. 

http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=14

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For about a year I met with a Jehovah’s Witness in my apartment.  My firstborn was but a fuzzy headed baby and I was learning to nurse him.  This woman, grey haired and lean, knocked at my door.  I was 26 years old, and had no clue what a Jehovah’s Witness was.  She came at first with a very proper man, who eventually stopped coming with her.  I believe, from time to time, she brought along another, but eventually, it was just Mrs. E, me, and my little baby.  Weekly, I would prepare.  I would call friends, call Hank from CRI.  I read books, and I studied my Bible.  I prayed for Mrs. E.  I learned about her life.  She was the aging mother of seven born children, her husband had died a few years back.  She was homeschooling her last born son in her tiny apartment.  He worked at a grocery store, and took classes with his mother teaching.  Mrs. E ended up with Hodgkins Lymphoma.  She traveled to Mexico for some treatments.  Then, one day, we were tranfered across the country, and I am ashamed to say I lost contact with Mrs. E.  She was a sweet woman, and I wish I had maintained my meetings with her, had written her, and kept contact.  I looked her name up when we moved back three years later but didn’t find her. 

 

What did I learn from her?  That someone can be totally devoted to a lie.  She was such a kind person, the sweetest, really.  She loved me, I believe.  She wanted me to know what she did, and wanted me to do the right thing.  She told me she had enjoyed nurturing and nursing all of her children.  You know, we have that in common.  In many ways, she and I were very much alike.  This woman was not your typical person, spending hours dedicated to witnessing to others, spending time studying her organization’s version of the bible so that she could educate me weekly.  She truly did listen to me, but with my inexperience and lack of knowledge, we both put forth some pretty circular arguments.  She had something many people don’t have.  She was dedicated to her faith.  She was willing to take risks, meet in people’s homes (and that in itself can be scary when you don’t know how safe people are).  She probably was rejected often, and had rude comments leveled her way.  I can believe she had hundreds of doors slammed in her face.  Still, she persisted.  Even in her illness, she continued on.  She had a goal, a required amount of hours to serve, a mission, a vision.  She had a passion, and had studied, she had knowledge.  So much she had.  And she did it all for the Watchtower organization.  And all my talking didn’t move her from what I could see.  Also, I didn’t become a Jehovah’s Witness, so I guess we were even.  I don’t know that anything was accomplished by me.  In fact, I know not much was accomplished.  I wonder about her now, I am guessing she’s no longer living, but I hope I am wrong.  Would love to hear that she had been convinced of the truth at a later time, and really understood that Jesus is the true Son of God and is God.  One thing is for sure, I learned from that woman.  I learned.

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I am writing my letter to a few pastors who lead our past church to explain why we are leaving.  It’s so very difficult.  It’s easy to write in an anonymous journal/blog, but is much more difficult when you know the people you are writing to will possibly not understand.  These pastors may see us a paranoid, crazy, weird, and downright wrong.  They may think we are judgemental.  They may only think they miscommunicated rather than that they need to repent and turn back to focus on glorifying God.  Since this deception is both subtle and layered, it’s very complicated to explain in a letter.  It may be the last communication we have with these pastors, and we love them dearly.  It’s important we say what we mean, we say what is true, and we say exactly what God wants us to say.  No pressure.

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I am struggling right now with the seperation from the church we so loved.  Really, the church was our family, our community.  We do have friends and connections elsewhere, but I believe church is to be a place where you go for fellowship wtih other believers.  We have so many in our own family that are not believers and followers of Christ, that we felt a responsibility for witness to our own flesh and blood.  My husband’s father is now a follower and believer because of our influence (and he had a solid pastor who would have their church studying one book of the Bible week to week for months).  My step-mom has really been thinking about her faith and her commitment to Christ, and actually has people praying for my dad who is basically a deist.   My mother has never been in my life, but is in a position where I can begin a letter writing relationship with and can share more about Jesus.  I have written letters to an uncle in the past who had attempted suicide.  I very much am one who tries to “go” and share the gospel.  But our refreshment came in our church family.  We love the people and are saddened by the deviation from truth.

I have other things that have been pulled apart.  The realization that merging is everywhere is shocking.  I am a radio listener, love pastors and Christian talk.  I hear the terms popping up there.  I also am sick of many contemporary songs that are not clear on doctrine (singing to the “beautiful one I love” but who is this one?).  Everything I ate up thinking it was doing something positive, and maybe most of it was positive.  It’s just I feel I need to evaluate everything.  I had sources I trusted, and now some of those are gone.  It’s rather frustrating. 

I am learning more and more that I have been out of the Word of God too much.  I used to be one that read, wrote prayer requests down in a notebook, and prayed almost constantly.  Life has gotten in the way, and I have felt so “good” in church I was unaware how far I had let myself go.  I really need to be regular in study, and in prayer.  This is not so I am saved, but so I can grow again.  It’s like my lifeline has been pinched so I was withering a bit.  I need to study and learn.  God’s always been there, I’ve just let myself go further from Him.

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I spoke with one carefully selected pastor today.  He was amazing.  He first prayed, and asked God that I would speak in “truth” with “clarity” and “boldly.”  I cried before I started, but got it together so that I could speak at all.  He agreed with me that the “emergent” themes are popping up in our church.  He agreed that the youth organization camp (YF) outside of our church is emergent and that the emergent is linked with the New Age.  He also feels that our church pastors have historically been focused on Christ and are saved, but that they are trying to replace language with new language and it’s not just the language that’s the problem but the meaning behind it, and the focus.  He believes this church’s focus is now just off enough that they are no longer focusing on Christ, on the Word of God, and it’s subtle, but it’s truly there.  He says he’s spoken to pastors about his concerns.  One pastor even brought a book from lighthouse trails research to him and asked him to read it.  He said he did, but he’s also reading another book much more technical and looking at theology and emergent.  I am facinated to hear this.  He really almost begged us to stay, that we would share our concerns carefully in love.  He did say he understands though if we really feel called to leave because our children are important.  He was glad I came to him and am honest, and he feels our family is rooted in the faith and loosing families like ours is bad for our congregation.  Many have already left, he’s spoken to them.  He suggests before we make our final exit, we write to a few of the pastors and outline our struggle specifically, telling them truthfully what we are seeing and where the message has gotten off.  He says to wait for their response.  He says he prays they will admit their mistake, and that they will put their focus back on Christ, the gospel, and reaching people for Christ. 

I feel for him, I really do.  He says he is not “a warrior” in this church trying to be on a high horse and change them back.  He does feel he’s welcome to speak the truth here (and I’ve never heard any of this stuff from him).  This is very good to hear.  He says he doesn’t feel he needs to leave and then he added, “yet.”  He wants to stay in contact with us, and really is concerned with things I brought up, and made it clear he has seen it too.  His hope is that the church will get off of man centered focus and back to focus on glorifying God.

I believe him.  I don’t think he’s playing any games.  He might be let go if he does push forward, and may have to find another job someday.  However, it’s possible, maybe, the church will be brought back.  Now we are back to square one, almost.  Actually, my husband has released himself from the area of ministry he was involved in.  He let the pastor of that area know we were leaving.  Of course, if we do decide to stay, we will not hide anything at all.  We will stay with the hope that our church does change back.  We can still participate in missions, service, and arts worship.  We just have to START with the focus on God.  The works can flow from this.  Oh, I believe there needs to be a humility, repentance, call for forgiveness, and then maybe a pruning, and then we’ll see what God will do.  Of course, I only spoke with someone who “got” what I was saying.  I think we’re going to come upon resistance like we’ve never seen if we really push forward.  At least we’re not in any positions of power, we don’t have anything to loose.  I am nobody.  I am not worth anything.  I am just a sinner who is saved by the mercy, grace, and faith given me by Christ Jesus.  Period.  That’s what I got. 

 

So now it’s to prayer, and talk with my husband to see what we should do.

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